MilkBoy ArtHouse, across the street from the University of Maryland, is tiny, conducive to talking to strangers. On Saturday night, the guy next to me at the barricade had face tattoos; he got them last decade, when he was playing in a band that “kind of sounded like From First to Last.” As we waited for the show to start, we chatted about the artists. “When I was in high school, Angel Du$t and Wicca Phase would have never toured together,” he said. “Back then, the hardcore kids didn’t like the emo kids. Now…”
He was onto something. In 2009, the night’s lineup would have made no sense. DDm, featured in the Baltimore Sunarticle “Baltimore gay rappers are loud and proud”? Guardin, a green-haired alt boy who seems like a musical mishmash of Metro Station and NeverShoutNever? Angel Du$t, a punk band unafraid to profess its affinity for puppies and anime? Wicca Phase Springs Eternal (née Adam McIlwee), a Pennsylvania-born indie rocker who reinvented himself and started a collective called GothBoiClique in a truly fascinating plot twist? Together? The concept sounds like it was written by a bot. In 2019, though, it’s more than just possible—it’s part of a new vision for a specific niche of the alternative scene. Both rappers and rock bands are steering away from “tough” images and embracing their vulnerability—a trend that has paved the way for “emo rap” artists like the members of GothBoiClique, which also includes Lil Peep, Lil Tracy, and Cold Hart. On Saturday, their fabled founder was coming out, and the scene was set. Leather jackets, black hoodies, eyeliner, and tattoos abounded.
Before we could get emo, it was time to get moving, and DDm helped us out with that. Backed by DJ Kotic Cotoure, he danced around the stage, radiating happiness and confidence all the while. There was nothing “GothBoi” about his aesthetic, but that was no obstacle to the crowd: they clapped and cheered him on, because human nature is dual, especially when you’re under 30, and people like to grin and laugh as much as they like to put a voice to their doubts and fears. A highlight was new track “He Say She Say”: before launching into it, DDm yelled, “You’re college kids! I know you can memorize stuff,” encouraging us to sing along, and sure enough, our voices joined his for the chorus. At the end of the set, he shook the hands of everyone at the barricade, spreading his positivity around.
Next up was Guardin, who stepped onstage with an unassuming smile. As he sang along to a glimmery backing track, someone near me remarked that it felt like 2012. Indeed, his music evoked memories of that brief moment when electronic music and pop punk collided at the turn of the decade. “Solitary,” his catchiest track, married lighthearted strings with desperate lyrics; it felt like Owl City given permission to curse, which is fun if you are in the right mood, and everyone in the venue seemed to be. In the middle of the set, he pulled out a ukulele and started strumming an acoustic version of his song “i think you’re really cool.” The chorus—“I think you’re really cool, like…” repeated four times—was simple, but sincere. When he put the instrument aside for his final songs, he did a few goofy dances, and the fans ate it up. If their eager reactions were any indication, his following is sure to grow.
When Angel Du$t entered, there was a shift of cosmic proportions. The guitars roared, drummer Daniel Fang pounded out a hardcore beat, and vocalist Justice Tripp paced frantically across the stage, shouting with passion. There was a lull that lasted maybe three seconds before the room broke out into a moshing frenzy. Soon, I was ducking out of the way of a crowdsurfer who looked like he was having the time of his life. The songs from Pretty Buff, the Baltimore hardcore group’s latest record, are fun and frenetic on the record, but live, they sounded like they’d been fully unleashed at last: truly, they were meant to reverberate across small venues. The fans yelled along, refusing to stay still for a second. If you were ever a Warped Tour kid, think of the wildest crowd you ever saw at the festival, and Angel Du$t’s audience will be pretty comparable.
The second the band left the stage, the anticipation doubled. It wasn’t time for Wicca Phase Springs Eternal just yet, though; we needed to be guided into the moment. That was the role of Fantasy Camp, a producer and member of Wicca Phase’s Misery Club collective. He stepped behind a DJ table and played an upbeat mix featuring GothBoiClique members and their affiliates; everyone sang along, in their element. Then Wicca Phase ran onstage, so fast I missed it at first. No flashy opening sequences for him; he launched right into “Together,” the first song on his new Suffer On LP. When he sang, “I wish that I could pay a friend to buy me a drink,” it seemed like the song was being written right then and there in MilkBoy ArtHouse.
Adam McIlwee is not drawn to ostentation like many of his GBC peers. Under the lights, he looked almost like a man that you would see on the street; keyword: almost. You could tell that he was an artist, a part of something greater, by his “Dark” baseball cap and Goth Cowboy t-shirt, a shout-out to Lil Tracy. The name “Wicca Phase Springs Eternal,” intended to be a little outlandish from the project’s inception, nails his vibe: he seems like a regular dude you might joke around with, but he could also be a cult leader on the side. His vocals are more like intonations, suiting his style of music perfectly. As he moved slowly across the stage, his intensity was tangible.
Many of Wicca Phase’s songs feature guitar-based backing tracks. The soft chords are a throwback to his days with Tiger’s Jaw, the Scranton indie rock band he founded with a friend in high school. At the show, they were synthesized instead of strummed onstage, but they built the same sense of sincerity. They created a sort of sing-along vibe—which was wonderful, because Wicca Phase has plenty of anthemic lyrics, and the crowd was ready to shout them out. Particularly chill-inducing was the end of “Rest,” a recent single. In the studio version, the final vocals—“Let me in, let me in, let me in”—are faint and distant-sounding, overpowered by the song’s main riff. Performed live, the phrase became a resounding cry screamed by everyone in the room.
The show floated by in a haze of haunting lyrics about spells and love. “Lights on Paper,” the most rap-influenced track on the setlist, was arresting in its monotone earnestness. “When Will It End” was more of a ballad; the chorus sounded almost like a somber church hymn with its soaring high notes. “Corinthiax” was the peak of the night. The song had very little melody, but its ambient noises crafted a cinematic feel within seconds. It was a concept piece about a dark, dangerous entity that Wicca Phase made up—and sure enough, each time he repeated the title, suspense crept in like fog. It was almost like he was singing the theme song to a TV show about a mysterious band of musicians, perpetually on a quest—and though such a show doesn’t exist, if it did, the ratings would certainly be high. Like his name suggests, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal is bound to be around for a long time.